by Nicole Del Mauro
Because the subject’s past has potentially negative effects on her future, we have published only the first name of the student profiled in this article.
When Megan moved her belongings into Weinstein residence hall for her first stab at freshman year three years ago, all she could think about was whether she had packed the adequate number of syringes in her medical suitcase.
Around the age of 12, the CAS sophomore had grown very ill. She had experienced episodes of fainting, dizziness and headaches. Her bones were extremely fragile and often broke. Her health issues were extreme, consistent and baffling to doctors.
It was not until fives years later that doctors were able to diagnose her with a rare form of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a defect in the connective tissue that supports one’s skin, muscles and ligaments.
In Megan’s case, the joint connecting her head to her spine was slightly dislocated, rendering her neck unable to support her head. Additionally, the illness staunched the flow of fluids to her spinal cord, leaving two holes that caused Megan extreme pain.
She required constant medical attention, as well as large doses of pain medication. But the consistent use throughout her childhood led to an unhealthy relationship with drugs. Shortly after being diagnosed at the age of 17, Megan started abusing her medication. Her doctor’s prescriptions were to be taken orally. But during a hospital stay, she was given pain medication intravenously and realized the effects were much stronger. She began using syringes to experience a stronger high.
Although the drug use lasted years, she was able to conceal her addiction from her parents: she didn’t attend parties often, chose to use with small groups instead and consistently earned straight As throughout high school, despite the little attention she paid to academics. The “peaceful user,” as Megan referred to her past self, never gave her mother cause for alarm.
When Megan arrived at NYU, she soon realized she couldn’t sustain the same results in college as she did in high school. She found herself drowning in school work despite her intelligence. But instead of attending classes and completing assignments, she spent hours in Tompkins Square Park every day getting high.
By November, in addition to neglecting her academic responsibilities, Megan was becoming inattentive to her medical needs. She no longer took medication for her illness and was “up to her eyeballs” in drugs.
“I just kind of inverted,” Megan said. “I felt like I had taken on more than I could chew.”
The deadly combination of stress, drugs and her illness became too much, and two weeks before finals her freshman year, Megan was hospitalized. It was then she knew she was too ill to stay in school. She arranged with NYU to take a medical leave of absence.
Her decision meant moving out of the residence hall. She could go back home to Long Island or go someplace else. Megan packed a small bag, left NYU and moved into Tompkins Square Park. Her mother came to the city to empty her dorm room, assuming she was staying with a friend; she didn’t question where Megan would be living next.
“I seemed responsible and I seemed self assured and I seemed like I was doing ok,” Megan said. “I was very good at presenting myself as far more confident than I was.”
To Megan, refusing to go home was to keep what was left of her pride, already severely wounded by her poor academic performance and drug habit.
“I didn’t want to go home because that would have been the ultimate display of failure,” Megan said.
She lived in Tompkins Square Park for roughly three months. Her home became a specific park bench to sleep and keep her belongings. It had become her home, and Megan recalled becoming very territorial.
Like the homeless people who keep cardboard boxes or draw chalk lines to denote their area, Megan said, the park bench became her only source of comfort and the only place she could control.
“I made my own space and I kind of felt like it was ok for me to be there and no one could come in without my permission,” Megan said.
But her days in the park weren’t an adventure. She described her daily life in the park as “boring” and most of her time was spent on a bench watching people and animals. Once in a while, she would interact with other homeless people living in the park in order to quench her thirst for human contact.
The limited amount of clothing Megan had brought left her unprepared for the winter months. In order to get the food she needed, Megan would play her ukulele in Union Square and in subways. Sometimes, she also begged and visited charity services for meals.
Living in the park also meant a constant fear of theft or an empty food storage. She was scared others in the park would try to hurt her as well.
One late night in the park, Megan was hanging out with a friend when she overdosed and became so ill that she could not walk. Her friend brought her to the hospital and her mother was called. Megan was again able to conceal her accident as a result of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Her mother, still unaware of her drug addiction, overdose and homelessness, still believed she was staying with friends.
Though she covered her story, the overdose and hospital stay were enough to convince her that she needed to seek help for her drug addiction. It was too much to handle. So she began to turn her life around.
In May 2011, she was admitted to a 12-step fellowship at a Connecticut rehab facility, and she completed the program successfully. Since then, Megan has remained clean. And then in fall of 2012, she gave freshman year another try.
“There was no reason for me not to be getting an education and proving really to myself that I was a person of value and that I can have value,” Megan said. “I felt like I owed it to myself and the people who kept me alive and kept me going to do something with that.”
In one particular class, Megan decided to write about her experience. Her Writing the Essay professor Dr. Maeve Adams helped her to produce the essay “Our Special Monsters” that was later published in NYU’s Mercer Street.
She then applied to the “Spectrum of Essays” course and wrote a piece entitled “Lost Girls” that was also published in Mercer Street.
After having her as a student, Adams wrote Megan a letter of recommendation to apply for NYU’s Presidential Honors Scholar Program, for which she was accepted. As a member, Megan will be able to study abroad, conduct academic research and attend exclusive lectures and events. For her project, she hopes to implement an educational program teaching homeless women how to keep safe in shelters.
Looking back, Megan said the most important lesson she learned was about companionship and how much it was really worth.
“You find value in people you never really think you would find value in if you have five minutes to sit down and get to know them,” Megan said. “And the fact is, it’s vastly more valuable than sticking a needle in my arm.”
Today, Megan is an NYU sophomore with a 4.0 GPA majoring in English. She still attends rehab meetings on a regular basis. With the past behind her, Megan finds immeasurable value in her academics. Now the intellectual stimulation, encouragement and rewards for her hard work in college are the preferred alternative to her previous dangerous and unfulfilling lifestyle. In many ways, success in school has become a new addiction.
“Having someone engage with me on an academic level has been so incredibly fulfilling. And it’s not a drug obviously. But it is, in the sense that I want more,” Megan said. “I need something to keep striving for and thirsting for and going after in a good way. It’s absolutely provided me something else to hold on to when temptation gets in the way.”